Farmers in Pakistan-administered Kashmir complain the government isn't doing enough to help them cope with weather extremes that are damaging their fruit harvests and bringing financial hardship
MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Masood Qadir, an apple grower in the border town of Gujarbandi in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, blames fickle weather for the failure of his crop this year.
“Last year there were bumper crops,” he said. “I earned half a million Pakistani rupees (around $4,700), but this year there are no apples.”
Erratic rainfall, combined with snow and hail while the trees were in flower, caused the losses, he said.
Qadir, 50, is sure the damage would have been less if he had been trained to deal with the effects of unpredictable weather. But farmers like him complain the government is not giving them enough guidance to manage the risks of a changing climate.
“Climate change is removing us from traditional crop varieties and sowing times,” explained Malik Matloob, a fruit and vegetable specialist in the agriculture department of Pakistan-administered Kashmir (known locally as Azad Jammu and Kashmir, or AJK).
Matloob said hailstorms or late frosts during spring have interrupted the flowering and pollination process of fruit trees.
“We must tell people crop failure is not their fault but it’s due to climate change, and (they should) adjust…by adopting resilient crops and fruit varieties,” Matloob added.
Matloob’s colleague Khawaja Masood said one reason for the difficulties is the development of “alternate bearing”. A tree damaged by frost or hail fails to bear fruit one year and stores the nutrients it would otherwise have expended on flowers and fruit.
This leads to a bumper crop the next year, followed by few or no apples the following year. In this way, the tree develops an internal “one year on, one year off” habit in response to abnormal weather.
Alternate bearing can be averted by managing the trees with extensive pruning, proper fertilisation and thinning out fruit flowers, Masood said.
Qadir is among thousands of farmers driven into financial difficulties, which economists say will increase food insecurity.
Shoukat Rasool, an assistant professor of economics at the Government Post-Graduate College in Muzaffarabad, said 88 percent of the AJK population lives in rural areas, and depends largely on agriculture. “Crop or fruit failure increases the financial burden of the rural masses,” he said.
INDIAN APPLES SUFFER TOO
The picturesque Himalayan region of Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan, is famous for its apples, and tens of thousands of people are involved in production of the fruit.
A 2011 study in Indian-administered Kashmir by Enterprise Solutions to Poverty found that the Kashmir valley produced 77 percent of India’s crop of around 2.9 million tonnes of apples, which made India the third largest apple-producing country in the world.
But this year the apple harvest has turned sour for thousands of growers in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir too. There, unlike in Pakistan, the crop was bumper, but the produce was reduced from grade A to grade C following high temperatures in July and incessant rains that provided a humid atmosphere ideal for crop diseases.
Kaleem Ahmed, 30, is an apple grower in Badgam, 25 km (15 miles) from Srinigar in Indian-administered Kashmir. He said that despite a great apple crop this year, he earned only 200,000 rupees ($1,900), half of last year’s income. The price has been driven down in part by imports from Iran and China, he said.
“There is no ‘one year on, one year off’ here, but the fruits are affected by the use of fake pesticides in some areas of the valley,” which fail to protect the apples from infestation, Ahmed added.
DECLINING FOREST COVER
Back in 2002, Pakistan-administered Kashmir produced nearly half of the country’s 600,000 tonnes of apples, but since then production has dropped considerably.
Shabir Abbasi, 45, an apple trader in the border town of Chakothi, said that during the fruit season from July to October, Kashmiri apples used to meet as much as 80 percent of demand at Pakistan’s largest fruit and vegetable market in Islamabad, from where they were forwarded to other parts of the country.
“I sold 500,000 rupees’ worth of apples in 1995,” he recalled, expressing disappointment over a decade-long period of crop failures due to irregular weather.
Pakistan is also importing apples from neighbouring China to meet consumer demand.
Tariq Masood, director-general of the AJK agriculture department, said that declining forest cover has also made fruit trees vulnerable to damage from hail and heavy rain.
Changing weather patterns are harming production of fruit, vegetables and crops, and farmers must adopt resilient varieties to cope with the challenges of climate change, he said.
“If people want to save fruit from extreme weather, they have to increase forest cover because forests break the velocity of rain, to reduce its effects,” he added.
But some AJK farmers say the government has not done enough to help them adapt.
“I will have to take a loan to make ends meet this year due to the apple crop failure, which could be avoided if the agriculture department fulfils its responsibilities,” said Masood Qadir in Gujarbandi.
“The agriculture department can neither control the effects of the weather nor train all the farmers for mitigation and adaptation,” said Masood. But “we are ready to help the farmers if they come to us,” he added.
Bashir Awan, 60, who has traded apples and pears since 1968 in the AJK town of Chakothi, said he sold 2,000 boxes of apples last year but this year there was no fruit.
“We have been facing ‘alternate bearing’ for over a decade, with government apathy to train and make farmers aware about the challenges of climate change,” Aswan complained.
“The government must take to task the agriculture department for the failure of fruit and crops, and disband it if it does not work,” he said.
Roshan Din Shad is a freelance contributor, based in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
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